Opioid receptor interactions: local and nonlocal, symmetric and asymmetric, physical and functional

Life Sci. 2003 Aug 29;73(15):1873-93. doi: 10.1016/s0024-3205(03)00549-6.


The pharmacological effects of opioid drugs and endogenous opioid peptides are mediated by several kinds of receptors, the major ones being mu, delta and kappa. Though classically it has been thought that a particular effect mediated by a drug or other ligand results from its interaction with a single type of receptor, accumulating evidence demonstrates that interactions between receptors play a major role in opioid actions. These interactions may be either local, involving receptors within the same tissue, or nonlocal, between receptors located in different tissues. Nonlocal interactions always involve intercellular mechanisms, whereas local interactions may involve either intercellular or intracellular interactions, the latter including physical association of receptors. Both local and nonlocal interactions, moreover, may be either symmetric, with ligand interaction at one receptor affecting interaction at the other, or asymmetric; and either potentiating or inhibitory. In this article we discuss major examples of these kinds of interactions, and their role in the acute and chronic effects of opioids. Knowledge of these interactions may have important implications for the design of opioids with more specific actions, and for eliminating the addictive liability of these drugs.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System / physiology*
  • Drug Interactions / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Receptors, Opioid / classification
  • Receptors, Opioid / physiology*


  • Receptors, Opioid